One thing the Council for National Policy (CNP) is never supposed to do is make news. The invitation-only club, whose aggressively vague name is an invisibility cloak for some of the most influential economic and social conservatives in the country, meets three times a year to plot the vast right-wing conspiracy's next moves--and remind its members not to talk to reporters or even refer to the group by name. Those attending the three-day September meeting in Salt Lake City got to hear Vice President Dick Cheney talk about the war and Mitt Romney testify on his home turf for family values. The agenda included sessions like the Next Generation of Conservatives, presented by the Rev. Jonathan Falwell; What Is Endangered: Climate or Freedom?; and Parents' Rights in Public Schools.
But it was a much smaller group of religious conservatives attending the conference who couldn't resist the opportunity to dust off their flamethrowers and aim them squarely at the rest of their party. On Saturday afternoon, a group of about 45 huddled privately to hear Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, handicap the 2008 race. And out of that two-hour rump session came the warning that within 48 hours landed in every political inbox: If Republicans go ahead and nominate the "pro-abortion" Rudy Giuliani, social conservatives will consider a third-party candidate in 2008. Republican leaders, explains conservative patriarch Richard Viguerie, "think they can holler, 'The bogeyman's coming, the bogeyman's coming!' every four years, and conservatives will get on board. There is zero evidence of that. They think we will be so afraid of Hillary and losing the Supreme Court that we will just fall in line. Well, we might want to run another candidate."
The party's right wing has been flapping for months at the prospect of a pro-choice Republican nominee. But Giuliani is also pro-immigration, pro-gun control and sufficiently indifferent to Evangelical sensibilities to interrupt his let's-kiss-and-make-up speech at the National Rifle Association and take a cell-phone call from his third wife, whose very existence is a reminder of how little they all have in common. And yet Giuliani continues to float atop most national polls, with 30% Republican support overall and a 27% plurality among Republicans who attend church regularly. Is it possible that his fans haven't read the fine print? "We ask if they know about his position on abortion, and an amazing number do not," says political scientist John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, who found that even among Republicans who rank social issues as very important, two-thirds did not know Giuliani's abortion stance.
To many values voters, Giuliani's rise is one more insult in the wake of the serial GOP sex scandals in Congress, the failure of George W. Bush's Administration to amend the Constitution to outlaw gay marriage, and a hunch that religious voters register on the Republican radar only when Election Day is in sight.
For a moment this summer, the savior was supposed to be Fred Thompson--who, whether or not he's a true conservative, has certainly played one on TV. But with reminders that in real life he supported the hated campaign-finance-reform bill, lobbied for family-planning groups, didn't go to church and was enough of a federalist to leave the definition of marriage to the individual states, it didn't take long for Thompson's halo to dim. Lest anyone remain smitten, Focus on the Family leader James Dobson sent his followers a rocket in September, writing "He has no passion, no zeal and no apparent 'want to.' And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!"
There were some at the CNP breakout who shared the spirit but questioned the wisdom of making the third-party threat. Recalled a participant who likened the splinter group to a kamikaze mission: "I was just sitting there thinking how every third-party effort has accomplished the exact opposite of what was intended. Perot helped give America the Clintons, and Nader delivered the White House to Bush." Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister often cited as the ideal bridge-building vice-presidential pick, was in no hurry to see his brethren break away. "The fact that a few people talk about a third party doesn't mean that they are the rank and file."
But the threat has a certain beautiful logic, even if following through with it would be suicidal. To conservatives who don't love Giuliani but hate Hillary Clinton, the message is very simple: Don't bother swallowing your principles to stop Clinton because if enough pro-lifers shift to a third party, Rudy loses anyway. The purists are also making a pragmatic argument: If your conscience doesn't guide you, how about self-interest? Take abortion off the table, warns Richard Land, the Southern Baptists' political point man, and "what you do is give the Democrats a license to go hunting for Evangelical votes on other things they care about--on climate change, economic justice, racial reconciliation." Green's research suggests that this risk is real. It's much harder for the GOP to mobilize Christian conservative voters, he says, if abortion is not part of the debate.
And yet the virtuecrats face a challenge from Republican voters who back Giuliani on principle--just a different set of principles from Dobson's. For many voters, the existential threat of Islamic terrorism trumps domestic social issues like abortion and gay marriage. A Pew Research Center poll finds a continuing shift in the issue valence: even among white Evangelical Protestants, the war is described as very important by 66%, compared with 56% for social issues. That can only help the former New York City mayor whose local war on terrorism was viewed as more competent than Bush's and who famously ejected Yasser Arafat from Lincoln Center and practically wore a cape to work as an urban crime fighter.
Land flatly asserts that "Giuliani would be the nominee if he were pro-life." Of course, he adds, "even if he told me he was pro-life, he also told three wives he'd love, honor and cherish them till death do us part." As for Giuliani, he responded to the third-party threat by embracing the very argument his critics despise. "Every poll shows that I would be, by far, the strongest candidate against Hillary Clinton," he said the day after the grenade landed. "There hasn't been one taken in the last six or seven months that shows anything other than I'm the Republican that has the best chance to beat her." Perhaps he is getting accustomed to being left out of the club that doesn't want him as a member. The Iowa Christian Alliance just threw a dinner to which they invited all the GOP candidates--except one.